Controlling Essential Tremor: There’s an App for That

David McKean’s hands are his life and his livelihood.

As an elementary school teacher and a college instructor, McKean needed his hands to edit students’ papers, write on the chalkboard and pass out papers. After more than four decades of teaching, the Nashua resident began to lose the ability to perform these tasks.

He was diagnosed with essential tremor, first in his right arm, then his left. The shaking became uncontrollable, making his handwriting illegible. McKean needed help to make notes on his students’ work. He stopped writing on the chalkboard. And he struggled to distribute papers, often dropping them on the floor.

“It became incredibly frustrating,” McKean said. “I’m 64, and this made me feel like I’m 84 years old.”

With no real known cause for his condition, McKean was placed on medication to manage his symptoms. But the drugs left him confused and unable to drive.

“It got to the point where I’m not going to quit, and I’m not going out on disability,” McKean said. “I can still teach, but the drugs were really impacting my ability to do my job.”

He made the decision to have a procedure called deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which physicians place electrodes on a patient’s brain and a receptor in the chest. The electrodes produce electric impulses, limiting the unwanted movement. While the procedure isn’t new, McKean was the first patient in New England to receive the latest technology in DBS. This newest device allows doctors at Lahey to better target the areas of the brain that need to be stimulated. By focusing the electric impulses on a more narrow area of the brain, this device reduces common side effects from older models, such as unwanted movements or drooping of the face.

“Essential tremor can be a debilitating condition,” said Peter Dempsey, MD, a neurosurgeon at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “This device allows us to create a more customized treatment for patients.”

The implanted device is controlled by an application that can be downloaded to a smartphone. In McKean’s case, the app was managed by nurse practitioner Janet Zani and neurologist Diana Apetauerova, MD. After his procedure, his device was turned on and the change was immediate. The results took McKean by surprise.

“All of a sudden my hand is still,” he said. “I thought there was something wrong, my hand wasn’t moving. It’s been so long since that happened, I started to get a tear in my eye. I’ve spent years hiding my hands from people – putting them in pockets.”

After the procedure, McKean and his wife stopped at a restaurant on their way home.

“I was able to carry the tray myself,” he said. “It’s something so small, but it’s something I haven’t been able to do in forever. I feel like I’m finally getting my life back.”

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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